It has been well over a year since Google’s Director of Product Management, Kan Liu, tipped the news that Google and Valve were working together to bring a native Steam gaming experience to Chrome OS. In that time, a lot of work has been done in preparation for what we believe could see ‘Borealis‘ launching as early as Q3 of this year. In its current state, Steam will actually install and run just fine on most Linux-enabled Chromebooks but the gameplay is still a bit shoddy even on titles that aren’t very graphics intensive. Over the past few months, I have spent more time than I probably should have tinkering to see if I could get the Borealis app installed on various Chromebooks. This week, I made some headway, albeit minimal.
After a few Developer Mode antics and some code acrobatics, I was able to get the Borealis app installed on my Chromebook and above, we finally have our first look at the initial installation screen for the Steam container. Sadly, as the second image denotes, the installation process throws an error for missing permissions. This wasn’t too much of a surprise considering the ongoing work being done on the project. Borealis has its own set of DLC(downloadable content) that is required for the setup process and my guess is that this content is still gated on the server-side. Then, there’s another missing piece that will be needed to make this experience fully viable on Chrome OS and that piece is Vulkan.
I have had the honor to connect with one of the brightest minds in the Linux space and he has given me some serious insight into what Google is doing to get Steam fully fleshed out and ready to run on Chrome OS. Luke Short wears many hats but during the day, he is a Senior Kubernetes Solutions Architect specializing in client cloud solutions. By night, he’s a developer, Linux game fanatic, code diver, and a big Star Wars fan – just to name a few things. Whatever you want to call him, this guy knows his way around Linux and has a technical understanding of the Chromium repositories that I can only dream about. I a recent post on Luke’s Github blog, he explains what Google is doing with Vulkan and how it will play into the overall performance on Steam for Chrome OS.
What is Vulkan?
Currently, the Crostini Linux container on Chrome OS leverages OpenGL graphics acceleration in the Linux container but it offers limited performance gains in the gaming department. Vulkan, a low-overhead API for graphics in gaming and it happens to be the officially supported API on the Steam platform. According to Luke’s research, it is this very API passthrough that Google is implementing into the Borealis container. Once integrated, Vulkan will be the key to properly running Steam’s Proton compatibility layer which allows users to play Windows-based titles on Linux. As Luke points out, Google will very likely hold off on an official Borealis release until Vulkan is fully implemented. I won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of how all this works but instead, I’ll point you in the direction of his very well-written blog if you’d like more details.
My key takeaway from Luke’s extensive research is that Google is looking to make Chrome OS a major platform for Linux gaming and Vulkan is a crucial part of that project. Android graphics will also benefit from Vulkan thanks to Zink, a.k.a, OpenGL on Vulkan. With all of these pieces in place, containers running on Chrome OS will be able to take full advantage of whatever GPU and computing power is available on the device. For the latest 11th Gen Intel CPUs with Iris Xe graphics, that should result in an entirely new level of gaming on Chromebooks and that’s a very big deal. As Chromebooks become more mainstream and consumer-focused, many users will quickly be looking for a way to play their favorite PC games on Chrome OS. Borealis will be the answer.
Seeing that Steam will already run on Chrome OS and the work on Vulkan appears to be moving at a rapid pace, I really feel as if Google and Valve are very close to wrapping up this project. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear an announcement around the end of Summer which just happens to be very close to the time of Google’s annual hardware event. Now, I’m not saying that Google will debut Steam on Chrome OS at an event but it sure does feel like the timing is perfect, and what better way to highlight Chrome OS as a platform than on a global stage for all to see. That’s my two cents. If you’d like to read more about Vulkan and get to know Luke Short, head over to Github here. You will also be able to find some of his new work here as we collaborate with Luke and share his expertise with you on Chrome Unboxed. Stay tuned for more.